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My friend and office mate Sheryl Winarick is an immigration attorney, advocate and entrepreneur based in Washington, DC and Austin, TX. Before starting her own immigration law practice in 2007, she spent eight years working for national non-profit organizations–Catholic Legal Immigration Network and the Justice For Our Neighbors program of the United Methodist Committee on Relief. She is currently in Residence at the TED office in New York and serves on HIAS' Public Policy Committee. Here, she writes about her experience as an attorney-volunteer assisting refugee women and children at the Southern border:
Sheryl Winarick, do-gooder.
Stories of the European refugee crisis continue to flood the headlines, but mass media seems to forget we have a refugee crisis in America, too. Since the beginning of fiscal year 2014, over 120,000 unaccompanied children and an additional 120,000 people in family units–mostly young mothers with children–have arrived at the U.S. border seeking protection from violence in Central America.
In March, I spent a week volunteering for the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES)–one of several partner organizations that comprise the CARA Pro Bono Project. I was assigned to represent women and children before the immigration court in San Antonio, Texas. Karnes County Residential Center, operated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, houses these refugees in harsh conditions while they wait for a judge to determine their fate. Their stories are tragic, as is the reality that most of these desperate human beings do not qualify for protection under U.S. law, despite the well-documented probability that they will face severe violence and harm if they are returned to their countries of origin.
General violence, extortion, corruption and impunity are endemic in countries like Honduras and El Salvador. However, in order to qualify for political asylum, an applicant must demonstrate that the persecution or harm she fears is targeted against her specifically “on account of” her race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group (PSG). Usually, PSG is the only hope, and eligibility hinges on a combination of the facts unique to each case, access to representation, and the appointed judge’s interpretation of PSG (which is not strictly defined).
As I sat in the courtroom while my clients spoke to a judge via video conference from the Karnes detention center, I imagined how they must feel and the thoughts that might race through their minds. Karnes is about 60 miles southeast of the court in San Antonio, so it made more sense for other RAICES volunteers to prepare them for court. That means they had never met me in person, and here I was representing them in what could be the most important hearing of their life.
How could they comprehend who I am, why I am there, and how I could know best what to say to the judge? Imagine, these desperate women, completely dependent on the help of strangers speaking a strange language in a strange land. They don't understand our legal system, and how can they possibly trust institutions of justice here in the U.S. when parallel institutions in their own countries are so corrupt? To make matters worse, the first thing we do to them (and their 3, 4, 5-year-old kids) is lock them up in detention facilities. The only truth they know is that they had no choice but to leave home if they wanted to live and to give their children a fair shot at life.
There are no easy answers. My hope is for our elected officials and for individuals like you and me to confront our collective reality with courage and compassion. People all over the world are wrestling with these very real issues daily; some of us from the comfort of our homes and others from jail cells in unfamiliar places. We must seek solutions for those in need and fight for rights and dignity for all people.
For a minute, close your eyes and imagine if this was your story, simply to be born into a hostile environment. Say a prayer for those in need, definitely give thanks for the freedom and relative comforts you enjoy, and do whatever you can to make a positive impact in this world we share.
This article originally appeared on the HIAS website.
This posting also appears on the Asylumist: www.asylumist.com.
Apparently, there was some big news recently about immigration. I am not sure about that, but there was some other news this week, a bit under the radar, also about immigration: The United States has offered Temporary Protected Status ("TPS") to people from Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone who are currently present in the United States. The reason: Ebola.
"I'm 25% more dangerous than Ebola."
This means that people from those countries will not be removed from the United States, and they are eligible for a work permit. The TPS is designated to last for 18 months, and then could be renewed or ended, depending on conditions in West Africa (and political considerations in North America). Applications for TPS must be submitted before May 20, 2015.
How does this contrast with our current policy towards Central America and Mexico? People in that part of the world do not face a threat from Ebola, but they do face a threat from cartel and gang violence, domestic violence, and--increasingly--government-sponsored violence related to the drug trade. So here's a question: Which of these two scenarios is more likely: A person from Liberia dying from Ebola, or a person from Honduras dying by violence? Let's take a look at some numbers.
According to the Center for Disease Control, 2,964 people in Liberia have died due to Ebola. The total population of Liberia is 4,092,310. This means that approximately 72 out of 100,000 Liberians have died from Ebola. Compare this to Honduras, where the murder rate is about 90 per 100,000. For those of you who like numbers, this means that a Honduran person is about 25% more likely to die from violence than a Liberian person is to die from Ebola.
The story is similar for the other TPS countries. Sierra Leone has had 1,250 Ebola deaths, with a population of 6,190,280, or about 20 deaths per 100,000 people. And Guinea has had 1,192 deaths with a population of 10,628,972, or about 11 deaths per 100,000 people.
Other Central American countries are less violent than Honduras, but still very dangerous. The homicide rate in El Salvador is about 41 per 100,000 and Guatemala is 39 per 100,000. The rate in Mexico is about 21 per 100,000, but I suspect that that figure is out-dated, as violence there has been escalating.
In other words, generally speaking, a person in Mexico or Central America is more likely to die from violence than a person from Liberia, Guinea or Sierra Leone is to die from Ebola. And yet we have offered TPS to West Africans and nothing to Central Americans. Why?
I suppose one reason is the nature of the problem. Ebola is a new threat and it is likely to be short-lived. Also, it is very frightening and its potential victims are completely innocent. Finally, there probably aren't a whole lot of people currently in the U.S. who will qualify or apply for TPS; maybe a few thousand. Gang and cartel violence, on the other hand, is more complicated. The problem is endemic and it does not look to go away anytime soon. Victims of this type of violence might also be perpetrators, and so offering them protection can seem dangerous (though I would argue that we can effectively weed out the bad guys). Last, there are a lot of people from Mexico and Central America currently in the United States. To offer them TPS would be a long-term, large scale commitment.
Which all brings us back to the Big Announcement of the week: Deferred Action for many people who have been in the U.S. for 5+ years. This certainly is a humanitarian benefit, in that it will keep many families together. But it is not a humanitarian benefit in the sense that it was created to protect people from harm. People in Central America and Mexico are facing a crisis. Violence there is out of control. While I am glad that we are not requiring people to return to places with Ebola, I think we should recognize that there is a certain hypocrisy in offering TPS to such people while offering nothing to our Southern neighbors.
The danger faced by Mexicans and Central Americans is equal to--or worse than--the danger faced by West Africans. It's just that the source of the danger is different. And so in the wake of the TPS and Deferred Action announcements, I am wondering whether we should be doing more to help people fleeing the gang and drug violence that is killing so many.
Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.